Five Things We've Learned Through Two Games Of Sixers vs. Nets
Save for a disgusting first half in Game 2, the Sixers have proven to be the vastly superior team and it would be a shock if this series goes beyond five games.
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In a series in which the Sixers are as heavily favored as they are, it would be understandable to not draw too much from these first two games against the Nets. Save for a disgusting first half in Game 2, the Sixers have proven to be the vastly superior team and it would be a shock if this series goes beyond five games.
That said, there are always interesting takeaways to be had from playoff basketball.
The Sixers have Joel Embiid, the Nets don’t, and that’s all that really matters
If the first two games of this series have shown anything, it’s the enormous cost that your team incurs when trying to limit Joel Embiid’s impact on a game. In Game 1, the Nets’ strategy was plain and simple – they doubled Embiid every time he touched the ball. In Game 2, the Nets adjusted their defense in two key ways: first, they mixed up their double teams a bit more (sometimes the doubles came on the catch, sometimes on the first dribble, etc.), and second, they were far more aggressive in helping off of P.J. Tucker.
The different diet of coverages combined with a more aggressive approach gave Embiid a bit of trouble early on, but he rebounded quite well to end up with 20 points, 19 rebounds, and seven assists. Even as the Nets’ game plan achieved its exact goal – getting the ball out of Embiid’s hands, allowing no easy touches, and avoiding cheap fouls – the Sixers still found ways to leverage that into high quality offense. Truly, there is no good way to guard Joel Embiid right now.
With the Nets going all-out to stop Embiid and deny him the ball, the big fella will have to find easy ways to get himself quality touches. One such adjustment Embiid made to get himself involved early in Game 2 was that he made a concerted effort to push the ball in transition. That situation is tough for defenses to handle – you don’t necessarily practice how to double team in that scenario, and when the Nets are playing small-ball lineups, Embiid can bulldoze his way right to the rim.
Just as part of a good defensive scheme is not giving a great player the same looks, part of a great player beating a good defensive scheme is not responding in the same way every single time. Sometimes, the best option will be for Embiid to spin away from the double team and call his own number. Other times, the best option will be for him to welcome the crowd and patiently pass across the defense. Others, it will be to kick the ball out and immediately re-post so that the team has to reset and scramble once again. These are all micro-second decisions that are purely a gut feel for Embiid, and it’s easy to see that he’s getting better and better at them.
In the next round against Boston, the double teams aren’t likely to stop coming; even if the Celtics primarily play him straight up, you can bet that they will swarm him in certain situations with certain lineups. But what this series has shown so far, while facing a very similar defensive roster to that of Boston, is that there is truly no good way to guard Embiid anymore. He is unguardable 1-on-1, and his ability to pick apart complex coverages is better than it’s ever been. There is a very strong chance that a few games into the second round, our biggest takeaway is once again that the Sixers have Joel Embiid, the Celtics don’t, and that’s all that really matters.
Tobias Harris once again proves his value in the playoffs
If you know me, you know that I’m not the biggest Tobias Harris fan in the world. I may or may not have called him the worst contract in the league, and I may or may write 2-3 columns per year proclaiming an urgent need to trade him.
Throughout the regular season – and each of the past few regular seasons – I’ve often campaigned to acquire a player in his place that had a bit more of a 3-and-D mold. Harris’ shot creation ability feels like a wasted luxury in the regular season, and his deficiencies in terms of 3-point shooting volume and less-than-excellent defense have felt like burdens at times.
And yet, every year in the playoffs, that seems to flip on its head. Harris’ shot creation ability goes from a waste to a necessity as teams go all-out to get the ball out of Embiid’s hands; simply having someone with basic shot creation skills as the fourth option on your team is immensely valuable. Teams cannot hide a small or subpar defender on Harris, and his ability to convert on straight-line drives becomes much more notable – especially in contrast to P.J. Tucker, who teams will only ignore more and more as the playoffs go on.
As much as the team might be better in the regular season if they could clone Tucker and start the two of them over Harris, he becomes much more of an asset when the playoffs roll around. Even just seeing his value against this subpar Brooklyn team has provided a stark contrast to the regular season. In the next round against Boston, as the double teams are unlikely to stop coming, Harris is only more likely to elevate his value.
James Harden question marks abound
Here’s my analysis of Harden’s physical health through two games: his change-of-direction ability looks fine, but his overall explosiveness and top-end speed look impaired. So, he can still shake and get by defenders on the perimeter, but he can’t separate and/or finish over defenders once he’s past them. That’s what leads to an awful lot of barfed up floaters, blocked shots, and bizarre foul-hunting gestures on his drives through the first two games of the series.
And, of course, physical health is only one end of the equation with Harden in the playoffs; his strange disappearing acts often have nothing to do with his physical condition. People forget that Harden had an outstanding Game 4 in Philadelphia last season before his legendary “the ball didn’t find me” performance in Game 6. In Monday’s Game 2, there were a ton of brain farts, careless mistakes, and stretches of lack of assertiveness that simply couldn’t be explained by physical health. This play, where he gets stripped, could’ve recovered the ball but opts to argue with the refs instead, and then never crosses half court as Brooklyn gets a wide open 3, is completely and utterly unacceptable:
I don’t want to be overly harsh on Harden – I have stated repeatedly and still believe that he is good enough to be the No. 2 on a championship team.But games like Monday absolutely cannot happen more than once per series if this team is going anywhere meaningful. Even in his current physical state, he is capable of churning out games similar to Game 1, in which he operates mostly as a floor general and is able to make the occasional step-back 3.
Whether or not the Sixers make a deep run will be mostly dependent on whether they get more of Game 1 Harden, or Game 2 Harden.
The occasional malaise-filled stretches continue into the playoffs
Heading into last year’s playoffs, a big part of the reason I was so bullish on the Sixers was that I found it inconceivable that the team could carry over their poor habits and lackadaisical effort into the postseason. I figured there was no way that the team could possibly lose focus as often once the stakes were higher, and that once their intensity level was equalized to that of other contenders, that they would have to be considered on-par with them.
And of course, I was proven wrong in both the Toronto and Miami series – the team effectively mailed in 2-3 games per series, including that pathetic Game 6 elimination against Miami.
This season, while their habits were much better, I still had to expect that the Sixers would churn out the occasional clunker that results in everyone wondering what on earth is wrong with them. And I thought the first half of Game 2 was the perfect example of that – I wouldn’t say the team looked disinterested, but rather unfocused, and once they corrected things early in the second half, they dominated the game as they should have all along.
The fact of the matter is that part of this team’s identity is no-showing games (or long parts of games), and last year’s exploits proved that they are capable of showcasing those ugly habits in the playoffs, as well. I am absolutely expecting one out of every five or six halves to look like that first half of Game 2 against Brooklyn. They can absolutely still win the title – they are that talented – but the habit of no-showing certain halves, or certain games, isn’t likely to disappear.
The fifth closer remains fluid
A sneaky development in Game 2 that not many people have made note of is the fact that the Sixers closed the game with Jalen McDaniels over P.J. Tucker, and that Tucker played just 22 minutes in total.
Brooklyn made a major effort throughout the game to leave Tucker alone as a shooter, and it paid off; that was a big part of the reason that the Sixers’ offense looked as clunky as it did early on in that game – the double teams against Embiid become more effective when you can leave an offensive player unguarded entirely.
Of course, part of the reason for sitting Tucker in the second half is that you don’t necessarily need his presence on the defensive end against Brooklyn; when they meet the Celtics in the next round, Tucker’s defense becomes more necessary against Brown and Tatum. But still, it’s notable that we are only at Game 2 of the playoffs and Tucker is already being yanked late in games.
I imagine that the fifth closer will vary game by game; Rivers has a willingness to go with his gut and trust whichever player stands out on that night. Some nights it will be Tucker, others, it will be Melton, McDaniels, or Niang. But with the degree to which teams are about to start selling out on Tucker, the chances that it will be one of the other three continue to go up.